A Promising Collaboration

Tim Goral's picture

The proposed partnership announced earlier this month between the University of Maryland College Park and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington is one of the more unusual ideas floated in recent years, not least because it would involve Maryland's flagship university investing in a privately owned institution located outside the state. Yet from what is known of the plan so far the potential benefits for both UM and the Corcoran could far outweigh the risks involved in such an arrangement, and for that reason it's worth exploring further.

The opportunity for collaboration grew out of the severe financial straits and management difficulties the Corcoran finds currently itself in. The venerable institution, established in 1869, was Washington's first private art museum, and it also houses a small but well-regard art school in its beautiful neo-classical building near the White House.

But in recent years the museum has struggled to attract an audience and raise funds to compete with the city's public art museums. For the last two years it has run a $7 million operating deficit, and its historic building needs another $138 million in repairs and renovation. Meanwhile the Corcoran Academy of Art and Design, which has proven to be more financially viable than the museum and which could generate additional revenue by increasing its enrollment, has been unable to expand due to a lack of space.

Even so, District art lovers were outraged by the Corcoran board's suggestion last year that the museum might sell off part of its $1 billion collection of artworks and use the proceeds to finance a move to more manageable quarters in the Washington suburbs. It was in the aftermath of the local hysteria generated by that proposal that the University of Maryland College Park stepped in as the white knight promising to save the Corcoran as a Washington institution.

Which naturally led to the question: What could the University of Maryland possibly find attractive about getting into bed with a financially strapped museum with an aging building and millions of dollars in liabilities that isn't even located in Maryland? The answer turns out to be: Potentially, a lot.

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